RALEIGH, N.C. – For whatever reason, the ACC Champion Tar Heels failed to play up to their No. 1 seed status until the second half at PNC Arena on Thursday.
UNC overpowered Florida Gulf Coast in the second half with the same blend of defensive intensity and offensive execution that produced its first ACC Tournament title since 2008 last weekend. The Tar Heels dismissed the Eagles’ upset bid with a 25-6 run to open the second half, holding their opponents to 30.3 percent shooting (10-of-33) during the final frame.
That UNC won wasn’t the story in Raleigh. The Tar Heels did what every other No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament has done in the first round since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. No. 1 seeds are now 126-0 against No. 16 seeds.
The story was that less than a week after it appeared UNC had moved past its troubling midseason trend of lumping glimpses of excellence with stretches of going through the motions, that head-scratching element reappeared in the first half of the team’s NCAA Tournament opener.
Florida Gulf Coast shot 60 percent in the first half – the highest percentage allowed in a half by UNC all season long – and outrebounded the Tar Heels, 21-14. Ten turnovers that led to 12 UNC points are the only reason the Eagles trailed 41-40 at halftime.
Brice Johnson said his team came out flat. Marcus Paige attributed UNC’s play to being tight, while Nate Britt preferred the term “nervous.”
“We didn’t play worth anything in the first half,” Johnson said. “We allowed them to shoot 60 percent. They got layups. That’s very disappointing. If we’re talking about how we’ve got big-time dreams and big-time goals, we’ve got to be able to do it. I’m not saying that like I’m being down on my teammates, because I know I did some bad things, too. It’s just that we’ve got to play better on the defensive end like we did in the ACC Tournament.”
When asked what in particular frustrated him most regarding his team’s first-half play, Roy Williams replied: “It was 50 things.”
The Hall of Fame coach, who passed Dean Smith for second place in all-time NCAA Tournament wins (66), mentioned doing a poor job on stopping dribble penetration, then moved to a lack of proper rotation on help defense before ending up on the rebounding woes.
Britt told reporters the halftime locker room scene was not a pleasant experience, while Johnson described it as “ugly.”
“[Williams] said everything that was on his mind,” Johnson said. “He was very pissed off at us about it. It was just we needed to play a lot better than we did.”
The championship week in Washington, D.C. was thought to have relegated that worn-out talking point to the recycling bin. On Wednesday, the Tar Heels talked about the disrespect thrown their way as various pundits had them succumbing along this road to Houston long before the final destination, and yet 24 hours later, here they were, leading a No. 16 seed by one point at halftime.
Johnson could only shake his head when asked why his team lacked the necessary energy in front of a home crowd and a national television audience in a win-or-go-home scenario.
“I don’t know; I couldn’t tell you,” the All-American forward said. “You don’t really know why you come out flat. It just happens. You try to come out there with a lot of energy and it just doesn’t happen sometimes.”
The benefit of playing a No. 16 seed is that your best is rarely required for the entire 40 minutes. UNC was good – Final Four good – over the first 10 minutes of the second half and was able to erase any concerns about becoming the first No. 1 seed to fall in the first round. That approach may not work anymore.
“There’s no time to tip toe into a game and not be the aggressor, especially with the talent of the team we have,” Paige said. “We’ve got to take it at them, whoever it is, and make them play our style of basketball.”
Smith believed that a team builds momentum once it starts tournament play, and Williams has maintained that line of thinking, which was evident in talking with his players following the victory.
“You’ve got to get something going once you start a tournament,” Paige said. “Obviously, we didn’t do any of that in the first half. We can’t build on anything we did in the first half, but we played better in the second half. We went back to our lockdown defense where we held them to 30 percent from the field, did a little bit better on the boards and got out and ran. We started playing Carolina basketball.”
The UNC team that played in the second half is capable of cutting down the nets in Houston. Its alter ego, the one that started the game, will fall short. Which version wins out in Saturday’s second-round matchup with Providence will shape the narrative moving forward.